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What are saccadic eye movements?

Saccadic eye movements are very fast jumps from one eye position to another. These are the eye movements used in reading or searching. This scanning of the visual field is learned during the first years of life, developing as a child explores their environment. In fact, saccades are the very first eye movements that develop!

How saccadic deficiencies affect reading

These eye movements are critical to success and speed of reading. If they do not develop well, it can result in the opposite effect: slow, frustrated reading. When learning to read the eyes must be able to align and track together (or form saccades) letter-by-letter, word-by-word, and line-by-line. Errors can be made when the eyes lose their place and have to backtrack (leading to re-reading and slow reading). Or instead of moving smoothly they skip around (leading to ‘words moving on a page’ or loss of place when reading and/or misreading words like ‘saw’ instead of ‘was’). When errors like these happen frequently, so much effort is put into trying to coordinate the eyes that reading comprehension declines dramatically.

In order to process visual information properly the eyes must move smoothly and quickly from word to word or from one target to another.

Symptoms of a saccadic deficiency

Symptoms that may be present if you or your child have a saccadic deficiency are slow reading, skipping words or lines, rereading over and over, poor comprehension, using a finger to track while reading, words appearing to move on the page, smearing of words or letters, words blurring in and out of focus, eye fatigue, and/or headaches.

Photo by John Morgan

Photo by John Morgan

Vision therapy for saccadic deficiencies

Saccadic deficiencies can be treated using vision therapy at any age, and it can help to improve reading speed and ability. Some of the treatments that might be used are monocular exercises done with a patch including charts, games, hitting a Marsden Ball, and doing eye stretches and jumps. Paper and pencil activities may also be used, and are often sent home with children to supplement in-office training.

Saccadic deficiencies can be easily tested for at an optometry office. If you suspect that you or your child is having imperfect saccadic eye movements, make an appointment to get an eye exam. The earlier that this is treated, the more successful a child can be with reading and searching!

In my practice, we currently have an 8-year-old girl (we’ll call her Sarah) who came in with poor reading comprehension. Sarah’s parents were advised that she may be dyslexic because she was misreading some letters and words. She would move her whole head as she read along the page because her eyes were having difficulty tracking on their own. We did a comprehensive eye exam, and that testing showed that she had poor saccades.

The best option to help Sarah was vision therapy. Early in the therapy, we worked on saccadic training and also left-right awareness on herself, others and on letters.

                               BDPQ Chart

                               BDPQ Chart

The first time we had her read a BDPQ chart she made numerous mistakes and clearly was having difficulty distinguishing the letters from one another. Now, after nine weeks of vision therapy, she is able to track much better along the text, and she is not mixing up her letters (and consequently, her words) like she was initially. Sarah’s family is impressed and relieved that the source of much of her reading frustration was easily treatable.

At-home therapy you can try today

If you are interested in strengthening your saccadic eye movements, you can try out this at-home training exercise:

By Dr. Nazima Sangha of Family Eyecare Centre